Global Living: An Interview with recent college graduate and current expat, Molly Johnsen

I had the pleasure of meeting Molly last summer when we were both preparing for our next global adventures. Not ready to give up her desire to travel simply to begin her career, Molly chose to combine the two by finding work abroad. Oh, and did I mention she’s a recent college graduate? Read more about Molly below!

What do you do and how long have you been doing it?

I am a field guide with a company called Pure Life by Aspiro in the industry of Adventure Therapy.  I have been working here for 10 months.

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What inspired you to pursue this line of work?

Psychology, and more specifically, therapy, have been interests of mine for several years (I studied Psychology in college and love learning about people and their motivations and behaviors). To me, therapy is giving a person tools to understand themselves and respond in healthy ways to their own thoughts and actions. I think going through the process of becoming acquainted with oneself and one’s patterns, triggers, needs, etc. is one of the most important things a person can do to maintain overall well-being. Being in a position to help facilitate this familiarization is something that brings a sense of passion, fulfillment, and joy to my life.

Did you have any global experiences prior to this job?

Previous to moving to Costa Rica, I interned with a street outreach program called Next Step in downtown L.A. when I was 19. Although the experience was not abroad, I definitely felt at the time as though I was stepping into another world. A couple years later, during my junior year of college, I studied abroad in Venezuela. During that semester I studied Spanish and Tropical Ecology.

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How do you think those experiences helped you secure this role?

My experience in L.A. gave me a lot of confidence. Essentially, I was fresh out of high school and hadn’t had a chance to test myself yet. Moving to L.A. for those couple months, living in less-than-luxurious conditions, and doing work that I had never done before (and was not sure that I could handle), taught me a lot about what I was capable of. Working with the population that we worked with also taught me about life outside of the small town that I grew up in. I was exposed to entirely different lifestyles, cultures, and perspectives for pretty much the first time, and it was life-changing. Though I have had a desire to travel, meet people, and learn about cultures for as long as I can remember, going to L.A. definitely solidified that passion for me. Coming home, I felt a pressing need to experience more, learn more, and grow more, which has, of course, led me to seek out other opportunities to do just that.

Studying abroad in Venezuela is especially pertinent to the work and lifestyle that I have right now. I learned the basis of my Spanish there through taking classes and speaking with locals. I also tried a lot of outdoor activities for the first time in Venezuela, some of which (little did I know at the time) are activities that we take our students on while they are participating in Pure Life’s Adventure Therapy. White water rafting and Latin dance are a couple examples.  Furthermore, living in Venezuela cultivated in me a strong fondness for Latin culture. Although there are distinct differences between Costa Rican culture and Venezuelan culture, my study abroad experience made me extra motivated to look for jobs that would allow me to return to that general part of the world.  

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What concerns did you have before you accepted this internship and how did you deal with them?

Moving anywhere is usually a type of transition that comes with stress and anxiety. New environments are daunting, especially when you know no one in the area and you’ll be doing things that you’ve never done before.  Add on top of that a new language, a new climate, and tons of new creepy-crawly critters to warm up to, moving to Costa Rica made me uneasy to say the least. I was absolutely out of my comfort zone. However, it may sound strange, but out of my comfort zone was exactly where I wanted to be. Getting the chance to push myself and test my limits and grow into a more confident, capable person was the goal that motivated me to push past all the fear and discomfort of the first few months abroad. I am still dealing with discomfort, but it gets easier all the time as I continue to learn and adapt.  

What has been the best part of your overseas experience?

Living in a place like Costa Rica, it’s hard not to feel a connection with nature– everywhere you look, you see green! Since moving here, I’ve really been able to deepen my appreciation for the beauty, self-sustainability, and pure genius of the natural world. I’ve been able to meet and familiarize myself with countless new types of animals and plants, and I’ve learned so much about the healing and medicinal properties of things that grow all around where I live. Beyond that, I’ve been able to forge a new type of understanding and peace with nature. Whereas before I came to Costa Rica, I had a lot of fear of insects, arachnids, water, and storms, I can now say that being so immersed in nature and getting better acquainted with it has helped me to feel less threatened by it.

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What has been the biggest challenge for you and how did you overcome it?

One of my biggest challenges has been building a life outside of work. I moved here for the opportunity to work with Pure Life, and I was excited about that, but I knew no one here. I had no friends, I was not familiar with the area, nor did I know about any opportunities to get involved in the community or find some hobbies outside of work upon my arrival. Due to the nature of my schedule, which consists of two weeks working 24/7, and the next two weeks off, I found myself with a lot of free time to fill. Fortunately, I also found myself in the midst of a very supportive and active community. I’ve had to take small steps toward feeling like I’m living a fulfilling life apart from work (and am still working on it), but with the help of friends and coworkers, I’ve been introduced to many new ways to stay social, healthy, and involved. I’ve gotten to try dancing, flying trapeze, acro-yoga, surfing, and commercial tourism guiding, to name a few. I’ve also been able to form several deep friendships with coworkers and friends within the community, which has been essential to my feeling of connectedness and grounding in my new home.  

How do you think this opportunity will help you in your future career?

My experience here with Pure Life has solidified my passion for studying and learning about psychology and human behavior. More specifically, it has helped me to narrow down therapy as the career path that I want to pursue. The varied amount of mental health illnesses that I’ve gotten to have first hand experiences with while working here has been beyond valuable. I’ve also been able to establish stronger skills in leadership, program development, outdoor awareness, and wilderness medicine. Whether these things are explicitly named as necessary qualities for my next position or not, as life skills, they are well worth having. I believe I will use all of them in some way, shape, or form in every job that I may have going forward.

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If others are hoping to launch a career which includes overseas work, what advice would you have for them?

For any person working any job, it is important to identify specific factors within the work environment and in the home life/work life balance that one needs to feel mentally and physically healthy. I believe that this is especially true when working abroad, and even more critical within the first year of working abroad. Due to all the changes that your mind and body are experiencing from such a drastic shift in environment, a new job that might have been relatively easy to adjust to at home can feel extra overwhelming. I would advise anyone preparing to start a new phase overseas to think carefully about self-care and specific activities, habits or rituals, types of support, etc., that they want to maintain while beginning their new adventure to have some sense of comfort and normalcy in their daily routine.

I have found self-care to be the main thing that I wish I would have paid more attention to upon arrival in Costa Rica. Because my job here involves spending a lot of time and energy supporting other people as they work through their personal struggles with mental health, maintaining my own mental and emotional stability should have been one of my main priorities. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way how important it is to make sure that I’m not using all my energy focusing on other people. Obvious though it may seem, in the moment it was hard for me to realize that I could not continue to help other people if I hadn’t taken care to make sure I had the energy to do so. This, I think, is a trend for people whose passion is helping other people. Don’t forget to help yourself first!

About Molly

Copyright Longing to Travel - Interview - Molly (4)Molly moved to Costa Rica in the fall of 2015 to work with an Adventure Therapy company called Pure Life by Aspiro after graduating with a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Minnesota.  She grew up in a tiny, tiny town in northern Minnesota, but always dreamed of traveling all across the globe. Molly loves learning new languages, trying new things, eating a lot of pasta, reading good books, and being outside. Find Pure Life Aspiro on Facebook to learn more about the company and the good work they do in Costa Rica!

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